Sunday, March 17, 2013

Ethereal Electronica: Massive Attack's Collected Leaves The Listener On The Fence (My Next Artist Of The Month!)

The Good: "Protection," Interesting sound, Album duration
The Bad: Repetitive mood, Male vocals, Narcolepsy-inducing, Obscured/boring lyrics
The Basics: "Bored Now," Massive Attack's Collected drains me after fourteen listens with its largely unmemorable tracks that play the same trick over and over again.

To expand my perspective and my c.d. collection, I have recently started listening to newer artists and giving them a shot. So, in my eagerness to hear what young people are being grabbed by these days, I recently gave Metro Station (reviewed here!) a chance and when I was pretty much done with that, I sat down and turned my television on. It was almost like prophecy: I had a short-lived music video channel on my local HD station and they played a video I had never seen with a song I had never heard. The song was "Protection," by the group Massive Attack. I had a familiarity with Massive Attack only from the opening credits to House, M.D.

Always eager to stimulate the economy - actually, desperate for some new music on my drive home from Las Vegas - I decided to give Massive Attack a chance and unlike my usual modus operandi of starting at the beginning, I opted to go right for the "Best Of" album. In this case, the album is called Collected and it acts as an anthology and introduction to Massive Attack for those who want the supposed best of their body of work. And, based on that . . . mmmhhhhmmm . . . it's a tough sell.

The thing is, the first time I listened to the Moby album Play: The B-Sides (reviewed here!), I knew I was listening to something fresh, new and also enduring and truly great. I've spun Collected a total of fourteen times now and the tracks range from the ethereal and unmemorable (I swear, everything after "Protection" on the album is a blur) to rap/hip hop like annoying ("Karmacoma," "Inertia Creeps"). Sure, there are the truly amazing songs, "Protection" and "Teardrop" (which, come to think of it has moments it actually sounds like Annie Lennox's cover of "Only Castles Burning"), but they are squeezed into the middle surrounded by songs that either want to be some form of techno/hip-hop (I understand the audiophile term is "trip hop") or just . . . well, I'm not sure what they are trying to be, but they end up as boring electronica tracks.

The problem, I've nailed it down, with Massive Attack on Collected is that the band appears to have gone through many incarnations or utilizes a number of different lead singers. The best pieces, hands down, on Collected are all presented with female vocals. So, while I "get" "Karmacoma" and can admit that there are moments it is even mildly catchy, the Robert Del Naja and Tricky are boring, predictable and almost more spoken than sung. This effect gets old, even by the time "Inertia Creeps" comes up because the net effect of the album is to numb the listener into a stupor.

Fortunately Del Naja has moments where he and his co-writers prove they can write. There might not be many, but there are some. Collected is a fourteen track album that clocks out at a substantial 78:45, but leaves the listener wondering just who and what Massive Attack are. It appears that the consistent elements of the group are Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall as writers, with later works influenced by Neil Davidge. Lead vocals are credited to Del Naja and TEN others over the fourteen songs! Is Massive Attack essentially Del Naja and Marshall? The liner notes don't indicate even that much. But what the ear tells us is that when their lyrics are presented by the likes of Elizabeth Fraser ("Teardrop"), Tracey Thorn ("Protection"), or Sinead O'Connor ("What Your Soul Sings") the group sounds like it is actually producing something worthwhile.

The reason I keep coming back to "Protection" is not just because it was the first full song I heard from Massive Attack. The truth is, it is the best this group has got, at least on Collected. Lyrically, it is an emotional powerhouse, telling the story of a person who steps up to do what's right for another, with its lines "This girl I know needs some shelter / She don't believe anyone can help her / She's doing so much harm, doing so much damage / But you don't want to get involved / You tell her she can manage / And you can't change the way she feels / But you could put your arms around her . . . But could you forgive yourself / If you left her just the way /You found her / I stand in front of you / I'll take the force of the blow . . ." ("Protection"). Set to a slow, murky beat with synthesizers and keyboards, "Protection" is illuminated by Thorn's sultry soprano voice. For all the instrumentals do to create a smoky, murky, obscured mood, Thorn's voice cuts through and simply and directly says something to the listener. It is a powerful song and the lyrics are sharp and intelligent and it holds up better than any other song on the album.

The thing is, the rest of the lyrics on the album are either almost indecipherable ("Butterfly Caught"), simple ("Karmacoma") or disproportionately poetic ("Teardrop"). Lyrically, Massive Attack seems to have something with such simple and profound observations as "Love, love is a verb / Love is a doing word / Fearless on my breath /Gentle impulsion / Shakes me makes me lighter / Fearless on my breath" ("Teardrop") but that type of poetic is not the rule on Collected. Instead, far more often what the group has to say is obscured by the synths and production elements that alter the main vocals.

Take, for example, the track "Five Man Army." This track is presented as a pretty inane, self-referencing rap song where half the primary vocals are mumbled through so as to be indecipherable. I had to look up what was being sung at the beginning. But sadly, what is audible is just dull, like "A turbo turbo and chant with a charge / Addy, Daddy G wild bunch crew at large / Don't call me an officer just call me a sarge / Mashing up the country planning also abroad / Plan to go to America when I get a visa card" ("Five Man Army"). It is like five people it took to write the song just picked the most stale and obvious rhymes to say . . . ? By the time the song degenerates into condemning gangsters and capitalism they are so far from whatever point they were trying to make that the social statement seems tacked on.

Instrumentally, songs like "Unfinished Sympathy" seem to do the same thing. Massive Attack seems so proud of being able to use different instruments or sounds that they don't seem to consider what they are producing. The result is a mild cacophony of sound that adds up to very little outside . . . well, noises. What isn't experimentally confused seems to fall into a pretty formulaic pattern of synthesizer beats and murky basses. "Future Proof" is emblematic of this type track, with its high end synths competing with numbly with drum machine snares, beeps and deep bass undertone. The vocals are produced into an amelodic white noise that leaves the listener with no real impression that they have heard anything.

The thing is, upon listening and relistening to Collected I often did not find that I did not like Massive Attack; far from it. Whenever "Teardrop" or "Protection" came on, my ears perked right up and when "Karmacoma" bleated out, I almost always rolled my eyes. But what I liked about Collected was almost entirely undone by the rest of the album leaving virtually no impression. It's sound and notes, but there is little melody or meaning and what lyrics might hold up more often have to be read as opposed to heard.

And as I start my reviewing day today, I just find myself wanting something more; wanting something that leaves an impression, outside just one song.

The best track by far is "Protection," the whole last half of the album is weak tracks.

For other, former, Artist Of The Month reviews, please visit my reviews of:
Hotter Than July - Stevie Wonder
Greatest Hits - Red Hot Chili Peppers
Rumours (2-Disc Version) - Fleetwood Mac


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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